NASA has ordered a safety review of the two companies it has hired to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a months-long assessment that would involve hundreds of interviews designed to evaluate the culture of the workplaces, the agency said.
The review, to begin next year, would look at both Boeing and SpaceX, the companies under contract to fly NASA’s astronauts, and examine “everything and anything that could impact safety” as the companies prepare to fly humans for the first time, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, according to three officials with knowledge of the probe, after he took a hit of marijuana and sipped whiskey on a podcast streamed on the Internet. That rankled some at NASA’s highest levels and prompted the agency to take a close look at the culture of the companies, the people said.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs declined to comment on what prompted the review. But in a statement, he said it would “ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment.”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview that the agency wants to make sure the public has confidence in its human-spaceflight program, especially as the companies are getting closer to their first flights, scheduled for next year.
“If I see something that’s inappropriate, the key concern to me is what is the culture that led to that inappropriateness and is NASA involved in that,” he said. “As an agency we’re not just leading ourselves, but our contractors, as well. We need to show the American public that when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe.”
Bridenstine said he has “a lot of confidence in the SpaceX team.” But he added that “culture and leadership start at the top. Anything that would result in some questioning the culture of safety, we need to fix immediately.”
SpaceX said in a statement that “human spaceflight is the core mission of our company. There is nothing more important to SpaceX than this endeavor, and we take seriously the responsibility that NASA has entrusted in us to safely and reliably carry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”
The company noted that it has worked alongside NASA for years and that it “actively promotes workplace safety, and we are confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements.”
Boeing said in a statement that its corporate culture “ensures the integrity, safety and quality of our products, our people and their work environment. As NASA’s trusted partner since the beginning of human spaceflight, we share the same values and are committed to continuing our legacy of trust, openness and mission success.”
The review comes after a tumultuous time for Musk, whose behavior led to a series of scandals.
Two months ago, Musk agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla and pay a $20 million fine as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had charged that he lied to investors when he tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take the electric-car company private.
Musk caused another uproar when he called a rescue volunteer working to save the children caught in a Thai cave a “pedo” and “child rapist” without proof. The volunteer has sued Musk for defamation.
Until the safety review, SpaceX, however, had been largely unaffected by the controversies, moving ahead with another successful year. So far it has launched 18 times — tying its record from last year — and says it is getting close to launching NASA’s astronauts.
Gerstenmaier said the review would focus not on the technical details of developing rockets and spacecraft but rather the companies’ safety culture — encompassing the number of hours employees work, drug policies, leadership and management styles, whether employees’ safety concerns are taken seriously, and more.
“Is the culture reflective of an environment that builds quality spacecraft,” Gerstenmaier said. The review would be led by NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which has conducted similar probes inside NASA. Gerstenmaier said the process would be “pretty invasive,” involving hundreds of interviews with employees at every level of the companies and at multiple work locations.
He added that the “companies are responsible. If they see something, they’ll take action.”
The review comes as the companies are working toward flying crewed missions from United States soil for the first time since the space shuttle was retired seven years ago. In 2014, NASA awarded contracts — $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX — to fly its astronauts under what is known as the Commercial Crew Program. Since then, the companies have faced setbacks and delays as they work to develop their spacecraft.
Earlier this year, Boeing had a propellant leak during a test of its emergency abort system. A safety advisory panel also found recently that Boeing still has a number of key tests that it has not completed, included tests of its spacecraft’s heat shield and parachute systems.
It also found that SpaceX is struggling with “difficulties and problems” with the spacecraft’s parachute system. “Clearly crew cannot be risked without complete confidence in the parachute design,” the panel found.
Given the problems both companies are facing, the panel concluded that their schedules to fly crews “have considerable risk and do not appear achievable given the number of technical issues yet to be resolved.”
Those technical issues are separate from the safety review. And SpaceX said it has made real progress in the development of the version of its Dragon spacecraft that is designed to fly humans. “We couldn’t be more proud of all that we have already accomplished together with NASA, and we look forward to returning human spaceflight capabilities to the United States,” it said in the statement.
SpaceX is planning to a launch its spacecraft without crew in January and plans to fly with astronauts on board by June.
Boeing has said its first flight without crew would be in March, and with astronauts by the following August.